There’s still a long way to go in creating workplaces that support work/life balance. Parliament has recently been scrutinising the gender pay gap for women over 40 – and a major factor is caring responsibilities. Working practices remain heavily gendered, with women more likely to work part-time, flexibly, and to be seen as the default parent when childcare arrangements break down.
But one great step forward was the introduction of a new right to take shared parental leave. This has been available to parents since April 2015 – offering new ways to combine care during the first year of their child's life.
There’s no quick fix to make it easier for parents and carers to balance their work and family commitments, but shared parental leave is one of the building blocks towards a culture change that supports gender equality in the workplace, and gives more fathers a realistic opportunity to take a decent period of paid time off to spend with their new child.
Crucially it presents employers with a chance to lead from the front – offering their staff shared parental leave as a positive option, and supporting their managers to effectively handle requests for this new type of leave.
At Working Families we work closely with employers to make our ambition a reality – a society in which everyone can fully meet their work and caring responsibilities. Today we’re publishing new research on their perspective of the first few months of shared parental leave.
And it’s a good news story. More than-two thirds told us that they think their organisation is supportive of shared parental leave. A lot of companies put serious thought and planning into how they would manage shared parental leave before it became an option for parents, and are continuing to invest in line manager training and communications.
Shared parental leave remains very new – our survey suggests that between 0.5% and 2% of eligible fathers have taken it up so far. The government has estimated that 8% of employees will make use of SPL. But that's an average, and employers have told us they expect take-up to rise, with some predicting far higher numbers than the official estimate.
We found that there are a number of different ways employers are implementing shared parental leave. A third are matching it to existing enhanced maternity pay: this is vital to ensure that SPL isn’t a ‘second-class option’ compared to maternity leave.
One of the key concerns around the introduction of shared parental leave was that it would lead to disrupted working patterns with periods of ‘discontinuous’ or intermittent leave. But employers told us that four out of five employees have taken leave in a single continuous block.
Inevitably, there remain concerns around the complexity of the new rights, and around entrenched cultural barriers to fathers taking leave. Both of these could be eased by well thought-out communications from employers: about the ins and outs of shared parental leave but also about the ways they’re supporting staff to make this a reality.
There’s definitely room for simplification of the scheme – we’ve taken a number of calls to our helpline from parents trying to get their heads around the scheme. We’d also like to see the right to take this leave available to fathers from their first day in a new job, to put them on a par with new mothers.
Both parents can take shared leave at the same time – but some employers told us that new mothers are reluctant to ‘give up’ some of their maternity leave. This points us to what the next step needs to be: a period of properly paid, standalone leave for fathers.
Of course, it’s still early days – the scheme has to yet to celebrate its first birthday – but, from what we’ve seen so far, shared parental leave is at least a useful tool in the box for families (and employers) planning how to balance working and caring.
Sarah Jackson is chief executive of Working Families